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Why we should care about network neutrality, now.

As we in depository libraries rely more and more on access to information that is not in our possession or control, we must rely on the Internet as the “pipe” that allows us and our users to get at that content that is on the servers of government agencies and others.

And, when we do get digital files and we want to make them available over the Internet to users at home or in their offices, our users will be relying on the Internet as the pipe from them to us that allows them to get that content we want to deliver to them.

So, what will happen if the Internet is no longer a neutral “pipe” that treats all bits equally? What happens if phone companies, cable companies, and other network service providers begin to give priority and higher bandwidth and speed to some services, some sites, and some information and, at the same time, reduce the bandwidth and speed of access to other sites, other content?

Recent events and statements by the key players show that is exactly what they want to happen. For example, Ed Whitacre, the CEO of the large telephone company, SBC, caused a stir last November when he said that companies (such as Google and Yahoo) that make money using SBC’s broadband connections should pay him.

“How do you think they’re going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that.”
At SBC, It’s All About “Scale and Scope” interview with Edward Whitacre, edited by Patricia O’Connell, Business Week, November 7, 2005

“My pipes” he said. How would this work? Companies that control “the pipes” would give preferential bandwidth to those service providers who pay them more money. Those who don’t pay would get slower service.

This is called the end of “network neutrality.” When the network is “neutral” it treats all packets equally. What SBC and similar companies want is the ability to treat packets differently and charge money for it. Jeff Pulver (who has a stake in his own commercial ventures, notably “Vonage,” an Internet phone company) writes:

I have some concerns that we might see the emergence of two Internets – one an ever-evolving and progressing privately-controlled Internet, and the other an increasingly dilapidated publicly-accessible Internet with minimal quality and capacity.
What Should the Government Role be in Ensuring an Open Internet (more questions than answers)?, by Jeff Pulver. January 12, 2006.

This is emerging as the next big political and economic battle over the future of the Internet. Very big companies (Disney, Apple, AT&T, etc.) have lots and lots of money at stake. If the big companies have their way, we could all lose, as librarians and as citizens who want equal access to information from all providers, not just the high paying ones. (Would GPO or Census be able to pay the same rates as Disney to push their content to users on the fast pipe?)

Librarians can be doing two things about this. First, of course, is to become aware of the issues, keep aware of developments, and make companies, elected officials, and government regulators aware of your position. Second is to advocate building your own locally controlled and maintained digital collections. If we have our own collections, users will still be able to get information content from us on site even if the Internet is busy providing bandwidth to the latest hollywood blockbuster.

Read more on this topic here:

  • Phone Companies Set Off a Battle Over Internet Fees; Content Providers May Face Charges for Fast Access; Billing the Consumer Twice? by Dionne Searcey and Amy Schatz. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Jan 6, 2006. pg. A.1 [subscription to proquest required]
  • Internet, interrupted, Financial Times (London, England)
    January 11, 2006 Wednesday
    London Edition 1 [excerpt only from benton.org full text by subscription at http://news.ft.com/cms/s/9073a884-8248-11da-aea0-0000779e2340.html] “Phone companies have already been stopped by the Federal Communications Commission from crudely blocking services that do not suit them. After fining phone companies that tried to block Vonage, the FCC adopted a set of broadband deployment principles in August that protect consumers’ rights to run internet applications and services of their choice. The phone companies are now taking a second run, in a subtler manner, by proposing to provide a fast-lane for those who pay. This could add up to the same thing. Instead of providing a connection that can be used by all – not only large companies such as Google but small start-ups and individuals – the phone companies would be ranking different services.”
  • Network Neutrality and Monopoly Control
  • What is Network Neutrality and Why Should Libraries Care?

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